The OHS obligations of global corporations

BHP Billiton has issued a media statement concerning the death of a miner, Gregory Goslett, at its coalmine in Khutala in South Africa.  Due to the number of deaths the company has had over the last two years, attention on any safety issue at BHP is intense.  BHP’s short statement reads:

“It is with deep regret and sadness that BHP Billiton announces a fatal incident at its Khutala Colliery opencast operations in South Africa. At approximately 05:02 am on Tuesday, 20 October 2009 Gregory Goslett (27), Mining Operations Supervisor, was fatally injured whilst driving a light vehicle at the mine.

An initial investigation indicates that Gregory was travelling in a light vehicle when a piece of coal fell from a loaded 25 ton haul truck travelling in the opposite direction. The piece of coal went through the windscreen of the light vehicle and struck Gregory causing fatal injuries to him.

The company is offering all comfort, assistance and support to Gregory’s fiancée Tarryn, his parents and those affected at the operations. Our thoughts are with Gregory’s family, friends and colleagues at this difficult time.

Mining at the opencast area has been suspended and investigations are underway.”

The Age newspaper points out that

“The accident was of the type that BHP has previously moved to eliminate from its Pilbara iron ore mines in Western Australia after several deaths last year…..”

“A key safety change made by BHP in the Pilbara in response to last year’s run of fatal accidents was the improved management of the interaction of light vehicles with heavy vehicles.”

The circumstances of Goslett’s death illustrates the obligations, some would say challenges, that multi-jurisdictional corporations need to ensure that safety improvements are consistently applied across their workplaces, regardless of location or remoteness.

BHP Billiton has been tragically reminded of this but BHP is only one corporation in the global mining industry.  Safety solutions and initiatives must extend beyond jurisdictions, countries and commercial entities to each workplace where similar hazards exist.  (The oil refinery industry was reminded of this with the Texas City Refinery explosion) The communication and sharing of solutions is a crucial element of the safety profession around the world.

Kevin Jones

Another mining death in Western Australia

Rarely have workplace fatalities gained as much political attention as the current spate of deaths in Western Australia.  Most have related to the iron ore operations of BHP Billiton but, according to one media report, on 8 August 2009

“New Zealander Daniel Williams, 26, died … at the Kanowna Belle mine site near Kalgoorlie, operated by Barrick Gold, after falling from an iron ore path into a hole.”

The media report clearly indicates that there are wider issues in the enforcement of OHS in that State other than just the operations of Barrick Gold.

Not surprisingly the unions are calling for a broader inquiry into safety of the industry.

SafetyAtWorkBlog has heard that Daniel Williams fell over 30 metres while checking a blockage in an ore pass grizzly shortly after midnight.  Perhaps, this should be considered an example of a fall from height moreso than a mining death.

Barrick Gold has been contacted for any additional information

Kevin Jones

Complacency and arrogance are the problems with mine safety in Australia

The signs are not good for the future of BHP Billiton’s safety program.  At the Diggers & Dealers conference in Western Australia on 5 August 2009, Ian Ashby, the President of BHP Billiton Iron Ore expanded on his statements some months ago about the poor safety practices at the company’s Pilbara worksites.

According to one media report, Ashby has said that BHP’s safety performance was  “generally showing improving trends”. He also said

“We’re looking for systems to eliminate these tragic events….. There hasn’t been any epiphany but we need to increase the intentionality and focus.”

Ashby specified two particular occupational hazards

  • traffic management, and
  • “fatigue management to prevent excess working hours”.

In April 2009, Ashby identified the following safety areas as those requiring attention:

  • Reduce site access;
  • Improve contractor management;
  • Enhance existing strategies to prevent excess working hours;
  • Move rail operations from the Mine Safety and Inspection Act to the Rail Safety Act;
  • Enhance traffic management standards, and;
  • Suspend all non-essential work outside daylight hours

Ashby’s presentation to the conference is now available for download.

Pages from diggersAndDealersMiningForumPresentation cover

The concern for the future safety performance of BHP Billiton comes from Ashby statements that, according to the press report, “the root of the problem was a poor attitude towards safety in the Pilbara region.

“There is an element that I don’t like to dwell on, but there is a complacency generally in the Australian workforce and a bit of an arrogance. I think some of that is quite manifest in the Pilbara.”

Ashby must have read the comments by Warren Edney about the lack of “safety brainwashing” in relation to the Pilbara miners. [SafetyAtWorkBlog has tried to clarify Edney’s comments with his employer, Royal Bank of Scotland]

The machismo of mine workers and new mining employers may be part of the issue but, as has been pointed out before, a similar Australian company in the same industry sector in very similar geographies – Rio Tinto – does not have anywhere near the same amount of fatalities even though it draw from the same worker demographics.

The OHS issue at BHP Billiton seems to be developing into a classic study of safety versus production.

It may be useful to note the report in the business section of The Age newspaper entitled “China taking all the ore we can ship: BHP“, a  report generated from the same presentation by Ian Ashby at Diggers & Dealers’.

Kevin Jones

BHP Billiton’s safety record is again in the Australian media

BHP Billiton’s production report has generated some OHS-related interest in the Australian business media on 23 July 2009, but not all.  [SafetyAtWorkBlog has written several pieces about BHP Billiton‘s safety record]

The company’s iron ore production has fallen short of its May 2009 guidance.  Iron ore is the only division where production has dropped.  The Age newspaper reports that the five deaths “forced a production slowdown” and noted the Western Australian government’s review of BHP’s safety management.

Malcolm Maiden’s commentary in the same newspaper mentions the BHP production results but describes the five workplace fatalities as “production glitches”.   He writes

“Production glitches for both companies [BHP Billiton & Rio Tinto] might have been handled better if their iron ore operations were merged, as is now proposed.”

Safety management may have been improved.  Rio Tinto’s OHS performance is considerably better but the description of the fatalities as “production glitches” is cold.

This contrasts considerably with the coverage provided to the BHP results by the Australian Financial Review (AFR) which listed the issue on the  front page  with the headline “Poor safety record hits BHP output” (full article not available online without a subscription).  AFR says

“the safety issues overshadowed better than expected results from BHP’s petroleum and  metallurgical coal units….”

There was no overshadowing according to the writers in The Age.

The AFR article identifies a raft of safety matters that illustrates well the OHS status of BHP Billiton and emphasises just how serious the workplace fatalities are.

  • “Tensions with the WA government [over a variety of issues, including safety] have escalated…”
  • Seven BHP workers died in Australia and South Africa in 2008/09.
  • “Eleven BHP staff… died while on the job in 2008.”
  • On 22 July 2009 WA Minister for Mines & Petroleum, Norman Moore, praised BHP’s efforts to improve safety but said “It is very difficult to understand sometimes why fatalities occur within the safety frameworks that operate in most major mining companies…” said on 22 July 2009

Warren Edney, an analyst with the Royal Bank of Scotland and occasional media commentator, spoke in relation to the safety record of BHP’s Pilbara operations, where five workers died.  He said in the AFR article:

“It’s better than Chinese underground coalmining but that’s not a big tick, is it?… In part you’d say that we’ve undergone this mining boom in WA so you’ve got workers who haven’t had the safety brainwashing that other parts of the workforce may have had over the last 10 years.  Part of it reflects that and part of it may be that people get pressed to do things quicker.” [my emphasis]

It seems odd to compare the safety performance of an open-cut Australian iron ore mine with “Chinese underground coalmining”.  Similarly describing safety education and training as “safety brainwashing” is unusual.  SafetyAtWorkBlog has contacted the Royal Bank of Scotland for clarification of Warren Edney’s comments.

The AFR has almost been leading the Australian media pack on reporting of safety management in 2009,  partly due to the OHS harmonisation regulatory program and its impact on business costs.  This may also be due to some of the concerns about increased union activity on worksites under the new industrial relations legislation.  The AFR should be congratulated for discussing the OHS context of BHP’s iron ore production figures and providing a front page prominence.

Kevin Jones

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